We asked 25 former Knoxvillians to tell
us what they really think about our fair city
by Jack Neely
You've gotten the change-of-address cards, you've seen the moving vans. Knoxville
isn't exactly drying up and blowing away, but between the crashing of Whittle
and Levi's, massive layoffs from TVA and ORNL, attrition at UT, and transfers
from Philips, Knoxville has lost thousands of bright citizens in the last
few years, professionals who are trying their luck in other cities and towns.
They leave many of the rest of us wondering what it would be like to be an
Only one thing seems sure: We'd have a perspective on this city we probably
don't have now. Longtime Knoxvillians with jobs and kids in school and a
30-year mortgage on Knoxville real estate may willfully overlook the city's
shortcomingsor, to keep the peace with the neighbors, keep mum about
them. When people leave, they're usually polite enough to not tell us exactly
why they're leaving, with a vague apology like, "It was just time for me
to move on..."
Just as often as we ignore Knoxville's faults, we may also take Knoxville's
best sides for granted and never guess what's unique to this citywhat's
missed by those who no longer live here.
Anyway, we were curious about how Knoxville looks in the rearview mirror,
so we asked several former Knoxvillians who've seen it that way. We wanted
to know, now that they're free to tell us, what they really think about this
We located 25 people of a broad range of ages and professions who had lived
in Knoxville for at least a few years, but now live somewhere elseand
let them vent. Not surprisingly, those most critical of Knoxville were those
who had lived in much larger cities. The perspectives each brought here are
sometimes so different from the others that their impressions of Knoxville
may remind us of the story of the six blind men and the elephantbut
they all have points worth hearing.
By the way, in outlining each of these responses, we're not including the
quote, "I miss my old friends;" it would be redundant. The only response
all these had in common was something to that effect. And don't get angry
at any of these responses; none of the negative opinions were volunteered,
shouted out of a car window with an obscene gesture. Most came from ordinarily
civil folk who used to smile and nod as we went on about what a great place
Knoxville is. We asked for these commentsand we asked these folks to
be unsparing, to give us some honest and maybe even constructive criticism.
Several comment that Knoxville seems like something less than a real community,
with a public presence and an involved populace. Some suggest that fact had
something to do with their leaving. By some descriptions, Knoxville sounds
like a sort of loose confederacy of private social clubs which only coexist
in the same geographical regionor, one commented, a ghost town of empty
houses abandoned by residents who choose to spend their free time out of
town. When it's not Boomsday, Knoxville can leave newcomers feeling lonesome
Margo Milleret, who lived in West Hills with her husband and son from 1987
to 1992, taught Portuguese and Spanish at UT. She and her husband had lived
in Austin for years, and found that Knoxville didn't have "what we saw as
necessary for living well." Knoxville, she says, "didn't have enough good
public parks and pools. Knoxville didn't have an active downtown area with
restaurants, clubs, shops..." They're now happy in Albuquerque, though their
teenage son says he misses Knoxville.
Tom Lombardo, now of Portland, thinks he's seen the secret formula to urban
living. One of Whittle Communications' chief editors, Lombardo lived in Knoxville
for 13 years. After leaving Whittle, he worked over the Internet and could
have stayed in his Sequoyah Hills home. But three years ago, he and his wife
moved to Portland, Oregonpartly because they were impressed with that
city's aggressive public planning. "This is a city planned for its people,
not for its developers. Knoxville is a city planned for the big developers,
the people who have money. The people who live [in Knoxville] have no say.
Downtown is dead or dying, and you have strip malls all the way out to the
county line. There's no rational urban planning."
Upon his arrival in Portland, Lombardo says, "I thought I'd died and gone
to heaven. In Portland, we have a vital downtown, with restaurants and movie
theaters. Any time of the day or night, people go downtown. And here's a
thing they'll never think of in Knoxville: We have something called traffic
calming." Rather than forever widening roads, he explains, Portland actually
removes lanes to make highways narrower and slow traffic down. "The merchants
love it," Lombardo says observing that outdoor cafes have sprung up along
the traffic-calmed routes. "Slow traffic is good for retail."
Lombardo says Portland often blocks streets off altogether, for lively holiday
parties. "It's the kind of thing that could exist in Sequoyah Hills, but
Lombardo laments that Knoxville leaders often seemed uneducated. "They don't
seem to be aware of what's possible beyond what already has been done," says
Lombardo. "There's still a lot of cronyism, a lot of let's just be good
ol' boys and maintain the status quo. They're not aware of what
can be done."
Like many of those most critical of Knoxville, Lombardo hailed from larger
cities: Pittsburgh, originally, and New York. But even for native Knoxvillians,
homecomings can be bittersweet. Former TVA employee Erin Miller has lived
in Berkeley since early '96. A 30-year-old architect working on a graduate
degree in urban planning, she grew up in Knoxville. "I miss the land a lot,"
she says. "I've come to understand what a strong attachment I have to this
place. I've come across more people who don't have a sense of their own place."
She says she's prouder to be Southern in Berkeley than she was when
she lived here.
Home for the holidays, she was taken aback by how different her hometown
seems from the Bay Area home she's already used to. "It's so discouraging
to be driving down the interstate and I can't see anything except Shoney's
signs," she says. She was shocked to see what happened to Deane Hill. "The
fact that they leveled this land without any consideration for how it's changing
the landscape astonishes me," she says. Recent news of other projects seems
to further her impressions. "This placethis communityis really
being devastated," she says. "It breaks my heart." She says she loves Knoxville
but may never live here again.
Chicago-raised Kim Riggs lived here for several years, working as a researcher
at Whittle and attending UT. She liked Knoxville in most respects. Her main
criticism is that Knoxville lacks the historical preservation that seems
more successful in Lexington, her new home. When she moved here, Riggs was
first attracted to Knoxville for its eccentric older buildings downtown and
in Fort Sanders, whole blocks of Victorian homes of a sort she'd never seen
before. But while she was here, several of her favorites were demolished.
"Knoxville seems too eager to tear down everything that makes it enchanting,"
Some blame the leaders themselves, one proposingin jest, we
hopemultiple assassinations as the only solution. Miller lambastes
Knoxville's leadership. "They're there to make the best decisions for the
community," she says, "but I don't think they do. They just take advantage
of the place." But she also blames the electorate. "The Knoxville
community is terribly passive. That's the thing that strikes me
most," about living in California after 28 years in Knoxville, she says.
In Berkeley, she says, community meetings are everyday events. "But in Knoxville,
you hear people lamenting about the baseball stadium leaving East Knoxville
or tearing down the S&W. And if you ask, 'Why don't you write the mayor?'
they'll say, 'Oh, no, I don't do that,' or 'It doesn't matter if I do that.'"
"These people aren't stupid," she says. Still, she suspects that many
Knoxvillians who see suburban sprawl as inevitableor even as
"progress"haven't seen how well other cities have solved similar problems.
"They've probably never been to a place with good public transportation,"
She thinks Knoxvillians are preoccupied with maintaining their "low cost
of living"especially low property valueseven when it means driving
much greater distances than people in many cities do. In Berkeley, she says,
it takes her about two months to use a tank of gasoline. Visiting Knoxville,
she says, "it seems as if I do nothing but drive."
Miller, in fact, thinks Knoxville's relatively low property values may be
a significant problem. In the Bay area, the high costs force more efficient
uses of land. "The lots are smaller," in Berkeley, she says, "and the streets
are narrower." Knoxville's cheap land, by contrast, is "why you see West
Knoxville being raped so badly" with sprawling commercial developments of
highways, cheaply constructed buildings, and "seas of parking."
For younger singles, of course, university-town Knoxville can seem like a
funhouse. Riggs spent much of her 20s in Knoxville, most of it working as
a researcher at Whittle Communications. "I had the time of my life in Knoxville,"
she says, citing the late-night dance clubs and the "great bars. I went in
the old Longbranch, and felt at home immediately."
However, several respondents, especially single adults over 30, decry Knoxville's
lack of social opportunities. For some of them that lack was exactly what
drove them away.
Magazine journalist Ron King left Knoxville and began his own communications
company in cable-mecca Denver. Leaving Whittle Communications in 1993, he
intended to stay in Knoxville indefinitely; he wanted to start his own
communications business, and he had a decade's worth of contacts here. "Starting
a business is dependent on knowing people," he says. "It would have been
far, far easier for me to do that in Knoxville, where I knew a lot of people."
But by '94, he was on his way to Denver.
"One of the main reasons I did leave was that I was a single guy." Divorced
and in his early 40s, King says he was in no hurry to remarry. "Knoxville
is so devoid of single people" his age, he says. "I felt it wasn't right
for me. One thing I do not miss is there's a slight prejudice against being
single, and a real tendency to get you fixed up and married as soon as possible."
Linda Munson, a veterinary professor in her 40s, didn't know King here, but
would agree. A Bostonian who had also lived in Washington, D.C., Munson moved
here in 1991 to teach at UT's College of Veterinary Medicine. She left Knoxville
by choice last summer. In Knoxville, she says, "single women were considered
Scarlet O'Harasanomalies that should be excluded from social activities.
I was not alone in this sentiment." (Apt observations, perhapsbut for
the record, Knoxvillians are statistically less likely to be married
than are Americans as a whole.)
Now happy in Davis, Calif., when she was in Knoxville Munson never found
a certain liveliness she has observed in other cities; to her, life in Knoxville
became monotonous and ultimately boring. She says Knoxville lacked a joie
de vivre, the quality "that makes life alive," she says. In describing
Knoxville, she says, "Benign is the word that comes to mind."
King hasn't heard what Munson says about Knoxville's joielessness.
But talking on the phone in his Denver office at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning,
King is trying to describe a certain lack he felt here. He looks outside
and describes a man whirling over downtown Denver in a paraglider.
"There!" he says, as if he just thought of a word he was looking for.
"I don't recall seeing that in Knoxville."
Others concur: "San Francisco is a lot more lively, oriented toward life
and the living of it," says Jonathan Tuttle, who moved his family to Marin
County in 1994. "But then, I never felt that way anywhere in the East."
Parodoxes of Size
Describing Knoxville, people seem drawn to paradox. To some, Knoxville's
surprisingly sophisticated and culturally lively for a city so small. To
others, Knoxville is disappointingly slow and stuffy for a university
townespecially one that is, after all, larger than most university
"Knoxville's the biggest smallest town," says Chris Brown, now of Memphis.
"There's a little of a lot of things, and not an overabundance of any one
thing. Sometimes you'd see the same people four times in one day, in four
different placesand there were some you'd never see."
King grew up in South Carolina and had spent years in Atlanta and Bozeman,
Mont., before moving to Knoxville; he moved to Denver three years ago. "Knoxville
is such a bipolar community," he says. "Isolationism has been part of the
history of East Tennessee, and sometimes I felt remote. But the university
has helped make Knoxville international. I have a great interest in French
language and culture, and in Knoxville I had no problem finding friends who
were native French speakers."
He adds that in spite of its remoteness, Knoxville was still "much closer
to the huge commercial stream of the East Coast" than is Colorado. He suspects
the New York Times makes more references to things in Knoxville than
it does to things in Denver. King has been surprised that Knoxville's booming
cable-TV industry has prompted him to send employees on business trips to
his old home.
Riggs grew up in Chicago but has lived in Lexington for three years. For
four years in between, she lived in Knoxville. "Knoxville was a small city
that kind of thought like a big city," she says. "Just without the
tall buildings and the 6,000 Thai restaurants. I miss Knoxville all the time,
especially in comparison to Lexington. There's just not enough going on here,
no good mix of people here."
She saw a good mix here, but many don't. "The Melting Pot of America missed
Knoxville," says Munson, "or Knoxville made it unwelcome." Ethnic diversity,
and Knoxville's apparent lack of it, was mentioned by several
respondentsbut that's a bit of a puzzle. According to the last census,
Knoxville's total share of racial minorities is about 17.3 percentclose
to that of America as a whole, which is 19.7 percent. And census figures
don't usually include Knoxville's considerable population of foreign students
and their families. However, the greater Knoxville metropolitan area is more
overwhelmingly white and native-born, and it's probably reflected in Knoxville's
Three respondents called Knoxville "intolerant," one recalling the daily
assault of militant political bumper stickers on Kingston Pike. (Some have
commented that bumper stickers are much more common here than in other parts
of the country; no one mentions missing them.) However, one gay couple, forced
by a job transfer to move to a smaller community in another state, say they
miss Knoxville's tolerance. "In Knoxville, we were accepted everywhere we
went," says one. "We weren't somebody's 'gay friends.'" Now, they say, they
could lose their jobs over it.
Several found Knoxville's size ideal, a perfect mix of large and small. Virginia
Wagner, a middle-school counselor originally from the Midwest, has lived
in various cities and towns around the country, including Branson, Mo.; Elgin,
Ill.; and Davenport, Iowa. She spent more than a decade in Knoxville, but
has lived in Hillsborough, N. C., for the last four years. "I've lived in
13 different places," she says. "Knoxville is, by far, my favorite of all.
I did not want to leave, but the person I fell in love with had a job somewhere
else." (Her husband teaches at Duke.) "I liked Knoxville's size," she says.
"It's big enough to find most everything I want, but small enough that it's
easy to get around."
Gina Ruffner, a 30-year-old Emergency Medical Technician, moved to Laurel,
Miss.a county-wide community of perhaps 60,000last summer. Many
of her comments about Knoxville are mirror opposites of those given by people
who moved to larger cities. She says she misses the diversity, tolerance,
efficiency, and faster pace of Knoxville. "We thought church was big in
Knoxville," she says. "But here in Laurel, there are two things you do: You
go to work and you go to church. People are on a different time frame here,"
she says. "They're on Mississippi time. They get to things when they get
She says Laurel doesn't host much live music. "I lived in Nashville for years,
and hated it. There was too much going on; you don't appreciate it. If it's
spread around more, you do. Knoxville's just big enough," she says, to support
interesting shows and cultural events.
Melissa Allen is a 25-year-old paralegal working for the Georgia State Bar
in Atlanta. "I miss going to a show and seeing it more intimately
than you do here." She says the same performers may draw five times as big
a crowd in Atlanta as in Knoxville.
Munson, however, found the same phenomenon a frustrating fault, disappointed
that Knoxville didn't always support what cultural attractions the city was
lucky enough to have. "Charlie Haden and other jazz greats could come to
town and only one-third of the theater would be filled," she recalls. "But
the football stadium was sold out a year ahead."
It's safe to say that many people who move to Knoxville as adults never fully
get the Vols thing. Riggs says the only time she didn't enjoy
Knoxville was "when it's football time in Tennessee."
(For the record, four of the five respondents who mentioned UT athletics
in any positive way were Knoxville natives. One, Miller, is not a great football
fan, but praises it as an anthropological phenomenon. "It's a remarkable
coming-together of a community. It's pretty dramatic to see a community rooting
for something to perform for them.")
Some say they miss Knoxville's college-town atmosphere. Others have never
detected it. One former Knoxvillian said she was persuaded to accept a job
in Knoxville partly by the knowledge that Knoxville was the home of a major
university. Originally from small-town Wisconsin, Anne Krueger had spent
a decade in New York before she moved to Knoxville in the '80s, confident
that the city had the trappings of a college town like Madison, Wisconsin,
which is comparable in size to Knoxville (though its university is much larger
than UTK). "Madison was an incredibly lively, diverse place, with different
kinds of people and different ways of thinking," she says. To Krueger, Knoxville
doesn't seem as "energized" as Madison and even other places like Chattanooga.
Like several Whittle editors, Krueger moved to San Francisco in '93but
unlike the others, she moved back to Knoxville in '97, when her husband
found work in Knoxville's burgeoning cable-TV business. Still skeptical of
whether there's life in Knoxville, Krueger admits she may not be aware of
all Knoxville has to offer. The difference may be visibility. "In New York,
you don't have to look" for interesting things to do, she says. "In Knoxville,
Nostalgia for Knoxville's Crime
Ironically, many longtime Knoxvillians might mention that Knoxville's two
biggest problems are crime and traffic. Those impressions aren't shared by
recent émigrés, especially those acquainted with other cities.
Many, even those who had mainly negative impressions of Knoxville, mention
Knoxville's "low risk of crime" and the fact that there's "no traffic." Compared
to most big cities that most young professionals seem to prefer, Knoxville
doesn't have much of either. "Knoxville has bone-crushing traffic at rush
hour," says Steven Horn, editor of the formerly Knoxville-based literary
journal Entelechy. "San Francisco has bone-crushing traffic at all
Melissa Brown, 26, is a Memphis native who lived in Knoxville for five years,
ending in 1995. During that time, she lived on East Jackson Avenue and worked
for two years at HooRay's. "I miss the sense of security," she says. "There's
just not as much crime" in Knoxville. Her husband, Chris, agrees. "I especially
miss Fourth and Gill," he says. "You could walk downtown anytime, walk to
the Old City at 2:00 in the morning, and be safe. I miss the safety."
They both seem astonished that some consider their old Knoxville neighborhood
dangerous. Several former Knoxvillians, in fact, speak highly of the Old
City, even some who live in big cities with lively downtowns. Greg and Anne
Abel, who moved to Denver last spring, say it's better than anything in Denver.
"The Old City was fun and full of energy, mainly due to the young college
students," says Greg, who's originally from Austin. "LoDo [the urban
entertainment district in Denver] is expensive and trendy, just not Anne's
and my cup of tea."
Tuttle, a 38-year-old art director and father of two, compares San Fran and
Knoxville as family towns. "It honestly balances out," he says. "There are
fewer cultural things to do in Knoxville, but things are so much
easier to do there. San Francisco has a real advantage on the big
things; Knoxville has a real advantage on the little things."
He adds he was eager to expose his Tennessee-born children to San Francisco's
Museum of Modern Art. "The kids absolutely hated it," he says.
Munson calls Knoxville "a nice family community" with some irony. Knoxville's
too family-oriented even for some families. Courtney Warfield and her husband
moved here in the '80s from rural upstate New York and had their two children
in Knoxville. Two years ago, they moved back there right between New
York City and Boston, but in a place so remote that delivery pizza's not
an option. Her memories of Knoxville are mostly fond, and she says she may
return someday. But as a parent of two children under 12, she found herself
overwhelmed with the logistics of balancing crowded itineraries.
"Living in Knoxville, there's 50 million attractions for kids. There's soccer,
gymnastics, swimming, dance, music, scouts..." She found her children so
bombarded with options and obligations that she longed for the simplicity
of the New York countryside. "Here there are no distractions. You've
got nothing you feel you have to do, just because everybody else is
doing it all." The simplicity seems to help her and her kids prioritize.
There are options in upstate New York, of course, but you have to travel
to get to them. "If it's important to you," she says, "you do."
A few found Knoxville's much-advertised friendliness overrated. Bicyclist
Lombardo, who lived here for 13 years, found Knoxvillians friendly in person,
but behind the wheel of a car, many turned into anti-bicyclist jerks. "The
attitude of drivers here [in Portland] is much more tolerant," he says. "In
Knoxville, I had altercations frequently on the road. People would yell at
you, throw stuff at you, come real close to you, try to run you off the road."
He now rides to work, something he never dared in Knoxville. Another West
Coast resident, though, claims Knoxvillians are much more tolerant of other
automobiles. "At stoplights in Knoxville, people sometimes let you sit through
an entire cycle without so much as a honk," says Steven Horn of San Francisco.
"Here, you get a brick through your window in about three seconds."
Another ex-Knoxville San Franciscan, though, insists the City by the Bay
is at least as friendly as Knoxville is. "The standard complaints about big
cities are a load of crap," says Tuttle. "People out here are really
open and friendly." San Franciscans express their friendliness in tolerance.
"In San Francisco, you can pretty much be whatever the hell you want, and
nobody is gonna say boo."
Ruffner says Laurel, Miss., is also friendlier than Knoxville is. "Knoxville
prides itself on being a friendly community," she says. "In reality, it's
very cliquish." She says she lived in a new subdivision in Northwest Knoxville
for four years and left without ever meeting her neighbors. The day her moving
van arrived in Laurel, she was getting visits from neighbors, homebaked cookies
Recalling Knoxville, most mentioned something we can't claim to own: the
landscape. Most missed the mountains and lakesbut it may surprise us
to know, many don't. Several Westerners, Midwesterners, and some deep Southerners
seem to feel trapped by our hills, trees, and rainy skies.
Originally from Austin, Bill Grimes has lived in Sacramento for the last
four years. Before that, he lived with his wife and two kids in Northeast
Knoxville for four years. A true Texan, he never got used to the fact that
"you can't really see the horizon" in Knoxville.
Melissa Brown of Memphis isn't enthusiastic about Knoxville's terrain. "I
like the mountains," she allows, "but Knoxville's not really in
the mountains, is it? Knoxville's only surrounded by mountains." The
Memphis-raised 26-year-old said this valley made her feel just a little
claustrophobic. It's an observation echoed by Texan Vance Bass, who now lives
in Albuquerque. Bass felt stifled by "the stillness of the air" in
Knoxvillewhich is indeed, thanks to those mountains, one of the least-windy
cities in Americaand says the lush trees made him "feel isolated from
Like the weather, we can't do much about our terrain, outside of leveling
the occasional West Knoxville hill. But these observations offer insight
into the perspectives of different people, whether it's landscape or city
size; many are strongly biased in favor of what they grew up with.
So, we've found as many points of view as we had respondents. Chop Knoxville
up and pour the pieces into a kaleidoscope. Every time you talk to somebody
else, give it a vigorous turn. Everyone sees different high and low points,
each has a distinctly different picture of a city they loved and hated, depending
partly on their particular jobs, their neighborhoods, their friends, their
memories of childhood homes, their distinctively different vantage points.
Still, beyond the contradictions and the occasional overstatement, there
are some general themes in their memoriesand for us, maybe some clues.